Lawmakers Are Trying — Again — to Halt PCB School Testing Program | Education | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Lawmakers Are Trying — Again — to Halt PCB School Testing Program


Published February 23, 2024 at 6:02 p.m.

  • File: Sean Metcalf
Just under a year ago, the Vermont House Education Committee approved legislation that would have paused the state’s ambitious and logistically complex school testing program for toxic chemicals known as PCBs.

At the time, lawmakers argued that the testing should be integrated with the state’s larger school construction priorities. They also worried about moving forward with a program that burdened school operations and could potentially cost tens of millions of dollars.

The full House eventually approved the pause. But the Scott administration opposed it, as did some leaders in the Senate, where the measure ultimately died.
But this year, as school budgets soar, remediation costs mount and administrators' frustrations persist, the House Education Committee has crafted a bill that would shut down the testing program. This time, some state officials appear slightly more amenable to the idea.

The state has allocated $13.5 million in the education fund to remediate PCBs in schools. The proposed legislation would stop testing for the chemicals once that pot dwindled to $4 million.

As it is, the state has already committed $6.5 million to schools that need to remediate PCBs, according to Jill Briggs Campbell, director of operations for the Agency of Education. A separate pot of $16 million is earmarked for Burlington High School, which, in 2020, became the first school in Vermont to find elevated levels of PCBs. The school has since been torn down, and Burlington is building a new one.
The reason to phase out the testing program is simple, Rep. Peter Conlon (D-Cornwall) told his colleagues on the Education Committee on Friday: “Why would we test when we don’t have the money appropriated to do the remediation?”

In testimony this week, both interim education secretary Heather Bouchey and Matt Chapman, director of waste management and prevention at the state Department of Environmental Conservation, said they were open to the proposal.

Chapman, though, offered several modifications to the bill. One would task the Joint Fiscal Office with developing a recommendation for how to pay for the remaining work needed to complete testing, mitigation and remediation of all Vermont schools that find PCBs.

As of January 1, 96 of the 324 schools in Vermont eligible for PCB testing had been tested. Of those, 37 percent, or 35 schools, have found chemical levels that require further action. Even the preliminary steps of testing materials for PCBs and putting air filters in rooms where the chemicals have been found can run in the tens of thousand dollars.
In an interview on Friday, Natural Resources Secretary Julie Moore said that the administration was not in favor of a stop or pause to the PCB testing program. Instead, she said, the administrations favors matching “the testing to the available resources.”

Moore pointed to a proposal she shared with legislators in January that called for a slowdown of the testing program, with 65 additional schools to be tested by June 30, 2025. The proposal also recommends a less aggressive approach to dealing with PCBs, with an emphasis on reducing concentrations and relying more heavily on air filters and paint and metal strips to seal off the sources of the chemicals. As it is now, districts are required to remove PCB-containing materials.

The administration is still in favor of that proposal, Moore said, noting "the public health concerns are real, and haven’t changed."

Moore said that she believes the $13.5 million in the education fund, plus an additional $3.5 million from the state’s solid waste management fund, would be sufficient to run the PCB program through the 2025 date.

After that, there will still be more than 150 schools left to test. A plan for addressing those buildings is yet to be determined, Moore said. She estimated that remediating all schools for PCBs will cost between $30 and $70 million.

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